Meet Flavius Josephus – through Steve Mason’s eyes

Left: Flavius Josephus

York Professor Steve Mason  has been involved for so long in research into the life of a Jerusalem aristocrat in the first century CE – Flavius Josephus – that he might feel he knows the man better than he knows himself.

For more than 20 years, Mason, Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Cultural Identity and Interaction in the Greco-Roman World, has immersed himself in 30 volumes of material written by Josephus. He describes the priest-historian’s works as the most important source for Judean history, after the Bible, for the origins of Christianity in the first century CE, and for relations between Rome and its eastern provinces.

As part of his Canada Research Chair project, Mason is leading an international team in preparing the first full commentary on what this prolific author wrote, along with a new English translation from the Greek.

Mason’s research is establishing the University as an international centre for the study of ancient texts, using new technologies to digitize texts and commentaries and improve access to research by scholars worldwide. The resulting commentary will be placed online where it can be easily updated, consulted and linked with archeological reports, providing a template for similar work with other valuable ancient texts.

The research draws on the talents of many scholars of ancient history at York, which has been a leader in Canada in creating an integrated, multidisciplinary environment for the study of Mediterranean antiquity, spanning the fields of history, philosophy, classics, anthropology, religion and art.  

Right: Steve Mason with a framed certificate in honour of his CRC work from Prime Minister Jean Chrétien

Josephus’s writing are recognized as valuable. But what, exactly, do they tell Mason and the world?

“The writings of Josephus tell us much about how the ancients handled intercultural conflict and negotiation, in their analyses of relations between the ‘superpower’ of the day and the smaller subject states, such as Judea,” said Mason.

“Even though we must read Josephus in his own historical context, it is remarkable to see how much some basic problems of human life – not only death and taxes, but also questions of human and national dignity, legal protection, and political-military power – have remained the same.”

Josephus has traditionally been viewed by scholars as a traitor to the Romans, and therefore valued only as a repository of information, while being dismissed as a thinker. But Mason says this “ingrained assumption has blinded reasders to the treasures” that his writings preserve.

“Although Josephus stands in a long line of politicians whose nations had fallen before Rome, his works have never been read as deeply thoughtful reactions to this situation. And yet they are extremely valuable because they are probably the most comprehensive and articulate statements of imperial politics from the geographical fringe.”

Left: The discredited ‘James’ ossuary, on display in the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto 

A historian in the Division of Humanities at York and an eminent scholar in the field, Mason has recently been a Killam Research Fellow and Visiting Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford.

Mason was among five international scholars at a public session in Toronto last year commenting on the authenticity of the ossuary (left) that was on display in the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), believed by some to have once contained the bones of James, brother of Jesus.

On the basis of Josephus’ portrait of James, Mason joined a number of scholars in questioning the box’s authenticity, a skepticism now supported by the Israel Antiquities Authority’s declaration that it is forged.

Right: One of Mason’s books about Josphus

Mason has written the following books: Josephus on the Pharisees (E.J. Brill, 1991); Josephus and the New Testament (Hendrickson, 1992; second edition, 2003); Early Christian Reader (Hendrickson, 2003, with T. Robinson); and Life of Josephus (Brill, translation and commentary, 2001); and edited Understanding Josephus: Seven Perspectives (Sheffield AP, 1998).